'Disco Elysium' Is The Most Original RPG In Years
It's as my detective vomits into the mud beneath a week-old corpse hanging from a tree that I realise he may not be cut out to solve this murder. The clues were there from the opening of Disco Elysium. Waking up on the floor of his hotel, the detective has drunk so much he's wiped his mind clear. With no idea where he is, why he's there, or even who he is, the first challenge is simply finding the keys to get out of his locked bedroom. Disco Elysium is a role-playing game but it's unlike any I've played before and much richer for it.
If you've played RPGs like Pillars of Eternity, Baldur's Gate, and Planescape: Torment then Disco Elysium will look familiar. It has an isometric view, showing off its lavishly drawn environments. But, unlike those games, its focus is on depth instead of breadth. You won't be travelling across a great fantasy land, seeing how regions differ in their customs and politics. Instead, the game takes place in a single district of a city. You'll dive into the significant (and petty) struggles of the people butting into each other in a small space. Almost everyone you meet in the game is a character with a vivid story you can ingratiate yourself into, learning about them, and changing their lives (for better of worse). If you're chafing against the idea that the games I listed above aren't deep, know that they are but then play Disco Elysium and see what they're up against.
While the broad goal of Disco's campaign is to solve the murder of the hanged man, that's like a guiding star for your journey through the city of Revachol. In my first day of the game, I found myself scouring the area for my lost badge and gun. Though, I was as invested in tracking down my missing shoe. I talked to someone who tried to convince me to take on his ideas of racial superiority, forced my way into the back room of a book shop to search for ghosts, and got into an argument with a letting agent who tried to hide from me in an abandoned apartment. It didn't matter which direction I took, I found characters and stories that immediately drew me in and held my attention.
As you explore the world and talk to people, your character will begin to change. In conversation you can pick up ideas that you can choose to contemplate. That race supremacist, for instance. He's guarding the entrance to a part of the city you need to pass through to continue your investigation. He's a giant of a man, so there's no hope of fighting your way past. One way to get by is convince him you're of a like mind by absorbing his ideology. In talking to him the undeveloped idea will appear in your character screen like an item in an inventory, you can slot that into your mind and begin ruminating on it. After enough time has passed in game, you'll develop the thought and internalise it. Doing so not only changes your stats, but impacts the way you interact with people in the future. It's not an easy path back to normality after you've trained your mind see things as black and white. Depending on the choices you make in conversation you'll also be offered the option of becoming a communist or a fascist, again with any ideology you adopt changing how you'll talk to characters in the future. Even opting to take a more centrist path leads to you being challenged to adopt that ideology whole-heartedly.
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Perhaps more than other people, though, you'll be talking to yourself. Or, more specifically, the different parts of your psyche. As you talk to people, interact with the environment, even as you change clothes, your mind will interrupt with its opinion. Whether it be your Electrochemistry eyeing up another character smoking and slipping into your brain to tempt you into snatching it from their hand, or your sense of Esprit de Corps telling you to play bad cop while your partner plays good cop, the traits of your character inform who you perceive the world around you. They create conversation opportunities, open up quests, and, well, they can make problems for you, too.
As you level up in Disco Elysium you can funnel points into the 24 different parts of your psyche, the skills of this game. Those without points are quiet in your head and rarely pipe up, but those that you level up will get louder and harder to ignore. I levelled up my detective's empathy skill, which meant he could perceive when a character wasn't telling me something, and often gave me just the right thing to say to make them open up. However, as it levelled up, it also made it difficult to challenge people. It would give a running commentary while I was in conversation, giving me context to what I was being told, and it made it very hard to dispute that person on what they said - either I didn't have the option, or because its voice would make quiet suggestions like "Don't push them on this, they'll react badly to that" - the things Empathy was telling me may not even have been true, they were simply the voice that was loudest in my head.
Depending on what skills you focus your attention on, and there is such a spread to choose from, you'll face a radically different game. You can drive your detective mad by piling the points into imagination, or into an inflexible thug of a cop by investing only in Authority, or into a manipulative sociopath by plugging points into Empathy and Suggestion.
In my time with Disco Elysium, I've simply been taken aback by the wealth of the choice and the impact those choices have on the world and my character. It's actually making other RPGs I'm playing at the moment shine less because they suddenly seem shallow. If you like RPGs, I whole-heartedly recommend picking it up, it's game of the year material.
Featured Image Credit: ZA/UM